The story of Lunar Festival is inextricably linked to the memory of Nick Drake. Not only is this event located in the idyllic Warwickshire village where the great English singer-songwriter spent his childhood years and where his body now lies in the local churchyard under the shadow of a magnificent old oak tree, but Lunar also possesses all of the romance, mystique and gentle hypnotism of his music. It all helps create a perfect cultural and aesthetic landscape for this rather wonderful little festival.
Much is made of the melancholy surrounding Drake’s life and death – he died at his own hand in 1974, aged just 26 – yet his presence here at Lunar is one of great positivity. He looks down benignly on the main festival arena from his huge image at the side of the Bimble Inn, the site’s second stage. In this vast painting taken from the photograph that adorns the cover of his posthumous compilation album Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake – where the folk legend is captured in some lush woodland, dressed in a vibrant cape with his left hand outstretched – he is a picture of colour, serenity and acceptance.
It seems most fitting that Ashley Hutchings should be performing at the Bimble Inn on Sunday afternoon. Over the years Hutchings has variously been a member of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Albion Band and is rightly regarded as being one of the single most important figures in English folk-rock music. He is also the man who first brought Nick Drake to the attention of legendary American record producer Joe Boyd back in the late sixties and set Drake on the road to a fame he would never see in his own lifetime.
And were any further connections with Drake required over the weekend, a number of artists paid homage to him by covering some of his songs. Amber Arcades – the moniker of Dutch musician Annelotte de Graaf – did so on Saturday afternoon. And on the previous evening Badly Drawn Boy had treated us to a beautiful, poignant reading of ‘Blossom’. Taken from another Drake compilation, Tuck Box, Damon Gough (the man who is Badly Drawn Boy) told us rather modestly that he had only learnt the song that very morning in his back garden in Manchester.
There was also the opportunity for 40 very lucky punters to commune together in the wee small hours of Sunday morning and listen to both sides of Nick Drake’s very own copy of his auspicious 1969 debut album, Five Leaves Left, on the family-owned 1965 Pye Archipon true stereo gramophone player.
But Lunar Festival is so much more than just Nick Drake, the preservation of his memory and an association with his music. It is an altogether all-round experience that embraces artistic creativity in a much wider sense. Back for its fourth annual edition, Lunar has continued to evolve. Music of the highest quality does remain as its principal attraction but to that a far-reaching programme of workshops, arts and crafts, well-being events, green-crafts, campfire stories, dance, educational classes, very fancy demonstrations, and entertainment for every member of the family has been further expanded and developed. The addition this year of a skate ramp in the Pink Moon Meadow to run alongside the kids’ disco, a nature club in the woods and the Lunar sporting fixtures is reflected by a marked increase from previous years on the number of young people who are in attendance at the festival.
And any trip to Lunar Festival would not be complete without a visit to Umberslade Farm Park. Every festival goer’s wristband entitles them to free access to the adjoining farm and farmyard. In the year that celebrates the 50th anniversary of The Beach Boys’ seminal album Pet Sounds it seems even more important than ever to spend some time enjoying the bottle feeding of the lambs, egg collection, calf feeding and generally grooving with nature. As the melodic synth-pop of Seeland drifted over the beautiful verdant pastures of the Umberslade Estate on early Saturday afternoon, it quickly became clear there were far worse pays to while away your time.
But for all of the many, varied and undoubtedly splendiferous attractions and activities that Lunar Festival has on offer, it is music that remains its heartbeat and guiding light. Lunar is the sister event to the equally excellent Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul and Moseley Folk festivals, and once more the organisers produced an exciting programme of music that was as broad in its appeal as it was rich in its texture.
“After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang out”. By increasing its late night schedule Lunar had clearly taken JJ Cale at his word. Once the sun had gone down, nocturnal revellers were now spoilt for choice between the ambient-techno of Psychemagic’s Arabian Tent, Swingamajig’s Speakeasy – where you could find yourself transported back into the 1920s – or the Zuba Zube Club where the Liverpudlian star of stage, screen and radio Craig Charles brought his funk and soul show to this part of rural Warwickshire. And that is just talking about Sunday night. The previous evening the clear highlight of Saturday night club night was brought to Lunar by Magic Door, this year featuring Deano Ferrino and the Jukes of Hazard. The prospect of a surreal Alice Through The Looking Glass experience had clearly contributed towards a long, snaking queue of people having built up way before the door of perception had even opened.
For those preferring to stay on this side of the midnight hour, though, there was still so much to enjoy. Friday saw back-to-back sets on the main stage from Stealing Sheep, Badly Drawn Boy, and Mercury Rev. Stylistically different they may well have been but each was connected by a certain dream-like quality that was high on intuition and definitive abstraction. With a resounding finale of first ‘Opus 40’ and then ‘The Dark Is Rising’, and some 15 years since last seeing them perform, Mercury Rev proved that age had not withered them. Jonathan Donahue’s outspread arms at the end spoke of his own triumphalism and a spiritual and musical reawakening for the band from Buffalo, New York.
Saturday was peppered with highlights. They just kept on coming, one after the other, allowing little time for recovery as the organisers’ most perfect and precise scheduling had us moving back and forth, up and down the gentle slope that connects the Bimble Inn with the main stage. There was the Lancashire synth-duo Duke St. Workshop who had teamed up with horror actor Laurence R Harvey. Together they produced a spellbinding series of tales of mystery and imagination that spliced Boris Karloff with those early 70’s electronic pioneers Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. And then came Bill Ryder-Jones in what was probably the performance of the entire weekend. The former co-founder of The Coral has talent to burn and with this, a stellar band and some really top class tunes he has harnessed all of these elements into sheer perfection. ‘Wild Swans’ was something to die for.
Ibibio Sound Machine introduced pizazz and passion to the party with a dizzying blend of Afro-beats, horns, disco, gospel, soul and electric guitar that got the Lunar crowd to their collective feet. Os Mutantes played as if the ‘60s had never really ended. The cult Brazilian Tropicália band affirmed that there is still a place in contemporary music for wild-eyed psychedelia and extended fuzz-guitar solos. And then Television brought their debut studio album Marquee Moon to Umberslade estate in its magnificent entirety. It mattered little that they did not play the record’s eight tracks in their original sequence because in whatever order these songs are performed they will still sound just as clean, raw and jaw-droppingly emphatic as they first did almost 40 years ago. To hear the guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip (who replaced the band’s original guitarist Richard Lloyd in 2007) is to listen to music that has been transported in from another dimension.
In keeping with its traditional position in the week, and by way of comparison with Saturday’s delirious highs, Sunday was a much gentler day of relaxation and reflection. Khruangbin captured this mood quite perfectly. Mainly instrumental, the Texan trio’s sound showed how to best achieve a gold standard when marrying somnambulism with the soundtracks to Spaghetti Westerns. Martin Carthy may well be the old war horse of English folk music, but the musical and personal traditions to which he still holds dear are all steeped in humanity and a deep understanding of the futility of inter-personal conflict. His interpretations of ‘High Germany’ and ‘My Son John’ had as much relevance today as when they were first written many, many years ago.
As the very last strains of The Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’ subsided, Sunday evening’s traditional Lunar Procession then emerged. A rag-tag collection of animals, brass band and the Crowman himself, the procession wended its way around the main festival arena in Indian file before arriving at the ceremonial burning of the crow. This mass celebration brought together a wonderful sense of unity and a chance for us all to mark our appreciation of what had been yet another remarkable occasion.
Following the incineration of the crow, Super Furry Animals emerged out of the smoke all dressed in white coveralls and looking as if they had just come directly from the scene of the crime. They might as well have dispensed with their “Applause” cue card as the crowd needed no encouragement; the biggest cheers of the night were reserved for their epic protest song ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’. SFA had a suitably subversive spring in their step, a playful irreverence, and some skyscraper melodies at their disposal. It was an incredibly seductive combination, making them the perfect festival band to sign off what had truly been the perfect festival.
Reflecting upon the events of the previous three days, the importance of Nick Drake’s spirit to Lunar Festival cannot be over-estimated. However, the overriding key factor in Lunar’s continuing success is its remarkable inclusivity. It is as warm, welcoming and awash with good vibrations as it is fun, friendly and chock-full of great invention. From the quietly unobtrusive security presence to the detailed planning and execution of its infrastructure and diverse programme of events, it is a model of consistency. In a day and age of corporate excess and festival homogeneity it is an absolute pleasure to report on an event that achieves the most wonderful balance between artistic integrity and creative freedom.
Lunar Festival was held between 3rd and 5th June 2016 at Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire
Photo credit: Simon Godley and Claire Eggleston
More photos from Lunar Festival 2016 can be seen HERE